The Mystery of Fidel Castro's Health: The Arab Connection

by Marcelo Fernández-Zayas

If you find yourself confused about the reports and contradictions of the last few weeks regarding the health of Cuban President Fidel Castro, don't feel bad - you are not alone. Even professionals of the press and intelligence agencies of the most important nations that follow the Cuban case show signs of confusion. In this game of international intrigue, there are so many working at the same time that it is difficult to be precise about what is taking place. In the paragraphs that follow I will attempt to elaborate on and to clarify the issue.

I will try to explain the events in an orderly way. My point of departure is based on two indisputable facts. First, Castro has suffered repeated episodes of cerebral ischemia since 1989. Second, he was operated on in Cairo in 1990 by Professor Ahmed Shafik, who I interviewed by telephone at the beginning of July. When I presented to Professor Shafik proof from Cuban sources that he had performed the operation on Castro in Cairo, He admitted to me that this was true. When I said that my Cuban sources reported that he had traveled to Cuba on different occasions, he confirmed that he had been to Cuba five times since the operation. Professor Shafik declined to comment about the nature of the operation and its prognosis. We have in our files proof of this interview. The interview record is also in some news centers of the United States. Cuban and foreign sources revealed that Cuban and Egyptian pathologists agreed on the diagnosis: cancer of the rectum. The loss of weight of Fidel Castro estimated at 50 pounds in one year has caused great alarm among the closest collaborators of the Cuban leader.

Fidel Castro publicly denied two weeks ago that he suffered from a cerebral condition, but he did not answer anything related to the surgery I reported. I will begin with the part related to the cardiovascular condition that affects Castro, giving dates, places and witnesses.

Curiously, I reported this in the US media several years ago. This news was broadcast into Cuba by the US government station, Radio Marti, when I was interviewed by one of the station's reporters, David Hall.


1979-1981 -- The first known comment that Castro suffered a serious health problem came from two sources: Colonel Antonio De La Guardia Font and General Abelardo Colome Ibarra. According to De La Guardia, who died before a firing squad in 1989, he was fishing with Castro under water when Castro had a respiratory problem due to underwater pressure. The result was serious damage to Castro's lungs. This story of Castro's pulmonary problems starting from the fishing accident seems to be a common view held by other persons close the President. Colome Ibarra reported a similar version of the story, different in only a few details. In addition, in 1981, it was communicated to all persons that were to meet Castro personally that they should abstain from smoking in the room when he was present. At the same time, Castro aides maintained the air conditioning at a predetermined low temperature.

Castro began to wear a thick "thermal" military jacket at all times. According to general Colome Ibarra, Castro had to maintain a constant body temperature. Doctors with whom I have consulted regarding this matter, vary widely in their interpretation of this news about the jacket. I cannot say with precision why he is using it (even today). However, several persons have confirmed to me the strict prohibition on smoking in the presence of or in proximity to Castro. (1)

July 1989 -- General Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sanchez was executed by a firing squad on July 13. Physicians who attended Castro during Ochoa's court martial advised Castro to take medicines against hypertension combined with tranquilizers. These doctors noted an alarming high blood pressure and Castro suffered a temporary paralysis in the days of the court martial of general Ochoa. At the beginning, this was diagnosed as a minor stroke but later was classified as a temporary ischemic attack. Castro responded to the medical treatment, but he showed unmistakable symptoms of cardiovascular problems. At this time Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, showed symptoms of depression. (Understandable, since both Castro brothers were longtime friends of Ochoa Sanchez) Doctors who attended Raul warned him that antidepressants and alcohol were a dangerous mixture. During Ochoa's court martial, Raul's speech to the court was incoherent and caused many generals of the tribunal to remark openly among themselves that Raul was under the influence of alcohol. On the other hand, other sources have explained to me that Raul's erratic behavior was motivated by stress and the influence of the antidepressants.

Spring 1990 -- In the spring of 1990, Castro traveled secretly to Cairo, where he was operated on for a malignant tumor in the colon-rectal area. The surgery took place at Cairo University Hospital. The surgeon who operated on Castro was professor Ahmed Shafik. A world-known surgeon, specializing, inter alia, in gastrointestinal ailments. The surgical procedure lasted for about three hours. The secret travel of Castro was made with the cooperation of the Egyptian government. In anticipation of Castro's arrival, Egyptian authorities sealed a wing of the hospital where only medical personnel, previously approved and sworn to secrecy, had access. Professor Shafik performed the surgery under the constant watch of the doctors who had accompanied Castro to Cairo. This news story was published in this medium on July 12, 1998.

March 1993 -- Epidemic of polineuritis in Cuba. In a meeting of senior officials of the Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) in Havana Castro heatedly blamed Dr. Hector Terry, a black physician, Vice Minister of Hygiene and Epidemiology, for the lack of public hygiene, and removed him from his post. Dr. Terry's response was that the origins of the epidemic were not related to hygiene, but to the poor nutrition of the Cuban population. This unexpected answer angered Castro to such an extent that he lost muscular-facial tone and he could not talk for several minutes. Castro was pale, and left the room with hesitant steps as soon as he recovered, aided by his assistants. Castro did not attend three additional meetings that had been scheduled to address this issue of national importance. Dr. Terry, who resided in the Avenues of Tulipan and Rancho Boyeros, was transferred to an obscure position in the eastern part of the island. He is in that position today. Months ago, Dr. Terry suffered the loss of a son. A person who knows this doctor intimately refers to him as a great person: "a piece of bread."

Summer, 1993 -- Castro visited Varadero Beach, the famous resort town on the north shore of Cuba, for the inauguration of a hotel financed by the Spanish enterprise Guitart. It was a brief courtesy visit. In the entrance to the hotel, Castro was speaking to journalists and visitors when he suffered an episode similar to the one described above at the MINSAP.This time, Castro bodyguards ordered the people in the lobby of the hotel to clear the area. Castro was seated for 15 minutes until he was helped to his car. There are people in Spain who can corroborate this incident.

Tuesday, April 12, 1994 -- Agents of Cuban State Security in charge of protection of "the Castro family" communicated to Lidia Castro, Fidel's half-sister and a resident of the Casino Deportivo neighborhood, that her brother was feeling better after "last night's sickness." They advised her to wait for more news, and to remain at home. Lidia, alarmed at this news, communicated with relatives and friends. One of Castro's nieces, with a knowledge of medicine, explained to Lidia in order to calm her that it was some kind of "sirimba" a popular Cuban word used to describe an unknown condition that affects or incapacitates a person for a short time. She said, in order to play down the importance of the news: "it was nothing grave, but it indicates that he should not work so long and so hard." Lidia communicated this to her intimate circle.

Friday, April 15, 1994 -- A doctor on the staff of the Calixto Garcia Hospital, whose first name is Julio, who lives or lived in 68th Street between 13th and 15th streets in the Havana subdivision of Playa, commented to nurses close to him that the surgeon, Eugenio Selman Hussein-Abdo (Castro's personal physician) was "unavailable" because Castro was very ill.

Saturday, April, 16, 1994 -- A Lieutenant Colonel, whose last name is Izquierdo, a member of Castro 's security staff, commented to a General who inquired about a rumor "among people close to Dr. Jose Ramon Machado Ventura ("Machadito"), that something was wrong with the "Comandante." Izquierdo answered "the man cannot walk, by orders of his doctor Selman Hussein, something in the brain, but in a few days he will be fine." (3)

Saturday, April, 23, 1994 -- In the last week of the month of April, the President of Zambia, Frederick J.T. Chiluba, arrived on a state visit. There were comments among the African visitors that Castro was showing a partial paralysis of the face, that his walk was unsteady and that he was speaking with difficulty, (4)

1995-1998 -- The health of Castro has been the subject of constant preoccupation among his intimates. He has been secluded from time to time in one of his many residences, mainly that at 160th Street, known as El Laguito, on the outskirts of Havana. This residential complex includes a private hospital. In addition, Castro has been admitted several times to the Center for Investigation and Medical Surgery (CIMEQ). There also is an emergency room on the fourth floor of the presidential palace.


Castro recently denied news reports related to his health in response to the statements from the "impostor" Elizabel Trujillo Izquierdo, in Costa Rica this past July. (The issue revolves around Izquierdo's unverifiable medical credentials.) Nevertheless, some of her statements are not totally false. Her allegation that Castro was admitted several times to the CIMEQ hospital in 1997 has been reported by other sources. The dates she cited are not precise, but I could confirm the veracity of some aspects of her story. However, due to the doubts raised by her contradictions, I am forced to elaborate about the doctors who attended Castro or have been consulted about his condition.

Chief physician: Eugenio Selman Hussein-Abdo, surgeon and confidant. Consulting physicians: Rodrigo Alvarez Cambra (Quico), Director of the Frank Pais Hospital. Julio Martinez Paez (Lulu), Director of the Fructuoso Rodriguez Hospital. Tania Fraga Castro (Niece of Castro); Jose M. Miyar Barruecos (Chomy), doctor and private secretary; Noel Gonzales, cardiovascular surgeon at the Hermanos Almejeira Hospital; Hernandez Cayero, specialist in vascular diseases.

Let us explain somewhat about Dr. Alvarez Cambra. This physician, according to Cuban, US, French, Iraqi and Israeli sources, is a brilliant surgeon. He specializes in orthopedics and trauma. At the same time, he is considered well-versed on French language and culture. He is an expert in Arab politics, and is the president of the Cuban-Arab Friendship Society. Dr. Alvarez Cambra, according to Cuban sources operated on Saddam Hussein at some time during the 1980's. Later, one of Saddam Hussein's sons was seriously wounded in an attempted assassination. This doctor is considered the son's "savior" for his work on the case.

Alvarez Cambra was close to Hussein in his various hiding places during the Gulf War. After the conflict ended, invading forces found the corpses of many Cuban soldiers and doctors, according to Israeli sources. Alvarez Cambra is married to a European woman, and has a son of the same name and profession. He has a nurse and confidant named Esperanza. At one time, his companion, assistant and bodyguard named Jose Antonio Fernandez (or Alvarez). Among the medical positions held by Dr. Alvarez Cambra has been the Director of the Frank Pais Hospital, in the city of Marianao, in the province of Havana.

The gratitude of Saddam Hussein can be seen in Alvarez Cambra's luxurious residence, located on 20th Street in the Miramar section of Havana, and two black Mercedes 500 cars. Visitors to the doctor's house, refer to it as an extremely luxurious residence, possibly valued in millions of dollars. Saddam Hussein also has extended his gratitude to Castro, giving the Cuban leader hundreds of carpets that were used in the meetings of the Cuban Communist party in 1995 and in October 1997. Some of these carpets were distributed among the Cuban "nomenclatura."

The activities of Dr. Alvarez Cambra are not limited to the field of medicine. He leads a double life, since he works also in the field of "intelligence." He tried to obtain oil from Iraq, but his plans were disrupted by the Gulf War. However, he was able obtain millions of dollars from the Libyan leader Muamar Qadafi in return for the training and "protection" of Libyan agents in Europe and Latin America. Also, Alvarez Cambra moved throughout Europe with the aid of Communist and French Socialists to accomplish his missions. Alvarez Cambra, I have been informed is 63 years old.

This doctor is one of the most influential persons in the intimate circle of Fidel Castro, and director of "the Arab connection." In Cuba, a wide range of radical agents live, train and operate; Algerians, Syrians, Iraqi's, Iranians, Jordanians, Lebanese, Libyans, Palestinians, Saudis and Yemenites. At this time, "the Arab connection" is one of the most secret, sophisticated and important operations of the Cuban intelligence services. Also, the most risky, in current conditions.

The recent terrorist attacks against American embassies in Africa, the great numbers of extremists of the "Arab connection" residing in Cuba, all manipulated by this nation in foreign territory, contribute to the possibility that Cuba is being seen by some groups in Washington as at least having some knowledge of the incidents. However, even though the possibility exists of indirect involvement, the probability is that Castro is not involved.

Castro has a consistent history of "wars of liberation" in foreign countries, but he has always maintained a prudent distance from terrorist groups. The Arab connections of Castro today are motivated mainly by economic factors, not by ideology or strategy. Castro, at this time, has a tacit agreement with Washington to limit himself to his internal problems, and to prepare as best he can to ensure the "achievements" of his revolution after his death. Castro, according to well-informed people, has so many internal problems that he would not open another issue.

Part of this "tacit" agreement between Havana and Washington consists of a gradual approach to the United States. Actually, Cuban intelligence services are cooperating with Washington in narcotraffic issues and other matters. Periodically, Cuban and American representatives exchange impressions in Washington Havana and New York, with the aim to avoid "surprises" or "provocations" that alter the agreements of these two nations. The main Cuban exile organizations are aware of the existence of this understanding. Even though the "Arab connection" exists, it does not mix into such sensitive issues such as worldwide terrorism.

Significantly, in my reporting about the health of Castro, the United States has not cooperated with me on this issue, which makes me think that the US does not want to alter the existing status quo. To insinuate or to say that Cuba might be involved in what happened in Kenya and Tanzania is irresponsible and lacking a solid foundation, unless the opposite could be proven.

   Colonel Antonio De La Guardia Font visited the US several times since 1975. He traveled mostly in the states of New York, New Jersey and Florida. He met with Cuban exiles with the knowledge of the counterespionage service of the United States. Persons I have interviewed inform me that during his court martial he (along with the rest of the conspirators) was charged, among other things, with cooperating with intelligence agencies of the United States. Some high-ranking Cuban defectors have confirmed that they heard a story that matches De La Guardia's story of the underwater fishing accident. They also confirmed the nonsmoking prohibition near Castro. However, no one has been able to explain convincingly the issue of Castro's thick thermal jacket.
   For a long time, a rumor has circulated in high Cuban governmental circles that Raul Castro consumed alcoholic beverages (vodka) in excess in the company of intimate friends: Julian T. Rizo, Jorge Risquet, Guillermo Garcia and Dermidio Escalona. Usually, they travel together to a farm in the city of Managua to watch the cockfights. It is known that Raul suffers from chronic depression, and his fluctuating emotional state could be attributed to his alcohol consumption combined with whatever medication he may be taking. Raul is regarded as an excellent father, brother and uncle who enjoys family life. He is the real bonding agent that keeps the entire Castro clan together.
   Among the security personnel assigned to the Castro family, there is more than one staff member with the family name Izquierdo. The only person with the rank of Colonel is named Eduardo Beltran Izquierdo. He is described as a serious person with a high reputation among military men.
   At the University of Zambia, in Lusaka, these comments about Castro's health surfaced again in April 1998 during the visit of a member of the Cuban parliament named Luis Abreu Mejias. A person close to President Frederick Chiluba who teaches at the University joked and spoke openly about "the poor health of the Cubans," when it was announced that the person who was supposed to accompany Abreu Mejias had returned to Havana due to a sudden illness.

Marcelo Fernández-Zayas